Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet +1: London, UK, April 18-20, 2011
In the close-quarters setting of Café Oto, an eleven-strong band rocking out with two drummerseven when everyone but the string players dispensed with amplificationmeant that, at times, the volume was ear-ringingly loud. To mangle Tolstoy's famous words from Anna Karenina, "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," all Tentet full ensembles have resembled one another, but each sub-grouping differed in its own way, none of them unhappy. Not that the juggernaut roar of the Tentet in furious flight was in any way superfluous, but the journey leading to that point was often even more rewarding than the culminating cathartic blow. However, it was rare for the entire cast to play simultaneously. Band members joined or dropped out in continually changing constellations. The trajectory was for successive passages of alternating crescendos and small group interaction, building up to a seething maelstrom which, often stilled for contrastingly poignant resolutions.
From left: Fred Lonberg-Holm, Kent Kessler, Jeb Bishop and Paal Nilssen-Love
After the first night, when the twin drum sets were set up at the front of the stage with the horns patrolling the rear, the stage layout became more logical with the two kits positioned at the left and right extremes, and the rest of the band in a loose semicircle to the front. Brötzmann spent much of his time facing the rest of the band, and although he didn't direct overtly, he nonetheless shaped the flow, at times, through the arc of his saxophone lines, which effortlessly sliced through the frenzy. But, on occasion, he was more direct. At the end of the opening night, with the band ramping up for a rollicking conclusion, the leader steered proceedings in what was obviously a well-oiled move by jumping in the air to bring everyone to a simultaneous halt as he landed.
It would be a thankless task to enumerate the highpoints from the three Tentet sets, but several passages stuck in the mind. The absolute pinnacle came on the middle night, when the band's elder statesmen, McPhee and Brötzmann, engaged in an alto saxophone intertwining of aching melodism, subverted only briefly by squalling digressions. Although not prearranged, everyone else listened intently, but chose not to join so that the piece was completed as a twosome. In the BBC interview, Brötzmann noted that his mellow side has always been there for those with the ears to go beyond the preconceptions, but clarified that he now allows it to come to the fore more often. This was just one of many times during the three days that it did so with an emotional charge all the greater when contrasted against the raging torrent in spate.
Brötzmann also featured in another highlight: McPhee posited a rhythmic figure on pocket trumpet, with just Kessler's earthy bowing for company. A vocal holler from the trumpeter momentarily interrupted the motif, and served to set up Brötzmann for a lone foray on tenor saxophone. Even at the age of 70, he hasn't lost the capacity to surprise. His regular gruff vibrato-laden tone splayed into astonishing vocalized yelps and ululating hollers, ratcheting up the stakes in intensity and passion more than usual until climaxing in a series of heartrending screams.
In another piece, a chirruping counter movement from Vandermark and Gustafsson ended with the two reedmen planted center stage, spiralling a capella vapor trails to the heavens. Gustafsson's baritone plunged deep below Vandermark's keypad popping clarinet, then surfaced to mesh in a language of feverish staccato phrases, until both men stopped abruptly, seemingly in mid-sentence, for a perfect finish, bringing a smile to the face for its unexpected felicity.
Everyone had their moments. Bishop, always ready to step forward, captivated Brötzmann's alto in a sweetly synchronized Americana tinged duet, which morphed into a bucolic brass band with the addition of McPhee's pocket trumpet. Another time the pairing of Bauer's gamboling trombone and Vandermark's cool clarinet, gradually submerged under frothing layers of orchestral sound, through which the Chicagoan impassively kept his cool, serenely floating above the increasing mayhem.
In comments posted on his Facebook fan page , Vandermark thought that these three days were a true highlight in the performance history of the Tentet, picking the second evening in particular as a standout in the career of the group: where they were focused, risky, cohesive and varied. While the audience at Café Oto didn't have the benefit of his experience to draw a comparison, no-one would be likely to argue.
All Photos: John Sharpe